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First published: October 2000

What is Beauty?

by Michael Sones

Western Water and the Laws of Beauty

do the laws of beauty apply
to the western water
into which the sun silently falls
each night and in the dark winter morning
the lake is flat and obsidian black
the mirror of an unreflected heart
and are these swans with their dancer's necks
dead or are they dreaming
of birth, grief, and callous death
that vanish
when the night breaks back
and they fly into the sun
in an ecstasy of
white winged describing

Xochiquetzal was the Aztec goddess of beauty. The quetzal is a beautiful bird of the Central American tropics with long and elegant tailfeathers. The god of night, Tezcatlipoca, kidnapped her because she was so beautiful. She became the goddess of love.  Her name means "Precious feather flower" and links both the beauty of birds, flowers and women. The Aztecs of Mexico were a highly developed peoples with astronomy, mathematics, architecture, and a  developed aesthetic sense. 'Flowers-and-song' was their name for poetry, art and symbolism. Some of their poetry is emotionally very expressive. Yet, horrifying to us, they also practiced human sacrifice and cannibalism on an enormous scale. In the ritual center of their capital Tenochtitlan, amidst the beauty of its canals, walkways and gardens was the tzompantli, the skull rack, with its collection of the trophy heads of thousands of sacrificial victims. Even the Conquistadors, used to the brutality of the Inquisition and European warfare, were horrified by what they saw. It is impossible to read the eyewitness account The Conquest of New Spain by the Conquistador, Bernal Diaz, without shuddering.

How are we to understand an ancient culture that had an appreciation of the beautiful yet also had so much horror in its heart?

The goddess of beauty was kidnapped by Tezcatlipoca, "Lord of the Smoking Mirror", and, in Aztec mythology, one of the gods primarily responsible for introducing human sacrifice. This relationship, described in the Aztec myth, articulates a universal fear about the relationship between beauty and violence and brutality.

In many cultures beauty seems to be strongly associated with the feminine. How many gods of beauty in myths and legends are masculine?


Beauty attracts yet it also provokes anxiety. Anxiety about the potential deceitfulness of beauty seems to haunt the human psyche. Is the inside of the beautiful object what it seems to be on the outside? The Sirens of Greek mythology lured men to their deaths through their compellingly beautiful songs. Odysseus had to be strapped to the mast of his boat. In nature there are plants and animals which are attractive to insects or other animals but lure them to their deaths to be eaten. One of the better known carnivorous plants is called, after all, the Venus fly trap. Venus was the Roman goddess of beauty. Belladonna is a very poisonous plant of the nightshade family-its name means 'beautiful woman.' Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of Beauty, took Ares, the violent god of War for her lover. Beauty and violence were often linked in the mythologies of the ancient world.

There are many aspects of Nature which are beautiful-clouds in a blue sky, distant vistas, and gorgeous sunsets. Yet to our ancestors, though Nature was beautiful, danger lurked everywhere and was often hidden. Large animals were attractive as a potential food supply yet obviously dangerous. Ferocious predators, like the jaguar, the bear and the wolf, hunted the jungles, forests and plains. Sensitivity to and appreciation of environmental and seasonal changes would have been essential to our ancestors' survival. Some aspects of our aesthetic response to various landscapes and seasonal changes are possibly connected to instinctive responses which evolved over countless millennia.

There is no question that the experience of beauty, primarily an experience of the senses of seeing and hearing, is personal and mediated by the cultural and historical context. What is beautiful to one is not to another.  Different cultures and different times had different ideas of beauty. Different classes within a culture have different ideas of the beautiful. 

Here, through steering you in the direction of interesting and beautiful websites, we explore beauty and ideas about it in the natural world, selected cultures, psychology, and philosophy.

From the full-bodied 'Venuses' of prehistoric Europe (the name given to small statues of women dating back over 30,000 years) via ancient Egypt, Polynesia, the Mayans and Aztecs, and, for contrast, the Inuit (Eskimos) to the thin-bodied anorexics of the contemporary fashion scene we take you on a journey across thousands of years and from the jungles of the tropics, the deserts of Egypt, to the barrenness of Greenland. From the astronomical observatories of the Maya to the stellar observatory of the Hubble. 

If you are interested in the natural beauty of the tropics visit Madagascar and the Cook Islands. Read about hummingbirds, orchids, and man-eating jaguars. Find out about the history of that most beautiful of animals, the horse. Learn how social wolves are and hear the howl of a wolf. Wonder how any one could live in Greenland and visit the most northern naturally inhabited community in the world. Marvel at the beauty of the arctic landscape.

If you are interested in human beauty read about fashion, hair and hairstyles, cosmetics, and the beautiful body. Why are certain types of people considered more attractive? Find out about the origins of art and how different cultures used art. There are also articles on food and taste and sensuous foods, such as chocolate, associated with beauty and romance.

All this in search of an answer to the complex of interrelated questions which runs through the background of these web pages: what is beauty? what is art? what is the aesthetic sense? Why do we respond in a certain way to some things and find them beautiful? How might this have originated in our evolutionary history?

Art is related to beauty but is not just about the creation of beauty. Art uses beauty.

How did the development of artistic creativity help our ancestors to adapt to their environments and survive?

There are no definitive answers here to these complex questions but there is much to interest you and lots to think about.

beautyworlds.com recommends these books from www.amazon.com



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Awakening BeautyAnthony Napoleon, the author of Awakening Beauty: An Illustrated Look at Mankind's Love and Hatred of Beauty, is a psychologist who has spent many years studying beauty and its impact upon both individuals and society. He has worked with both cosmetic surgery patients and beauty pageant contestants as well as conducting original research into the field. Awakening Beauty is an unprecedented exposé on the subject of beauty. It is both entertaining and thought provoking, a combination that is as unique as it is telling about the author's approach to the subject of this book. The reader is taken backstage into the worlds of beauty pageants, plastic surgery, trophy wives, murderous rage, wardrobe, makeup, Bill Clinton, the events of September Eleven and other provocative topics where beauty has had its effect. Awakening Beauty invites the reader into a world that is as interesting as it is frightening. Readers are transformed as the author shepherds them from their world into his unique perspective and expertise on beauty. Awakening Beauty includes over one hundred tantalizing photographs and illustrations. Awakening Beauty is a compendium of some of the most interesting facts in print. The subject matter of the book along with the author's unique approach to it makes this book a "must read." Get ready to re-think everything you thought you knew about beautiful women and physical attractiveness.

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